How to Find the Right Client Portal (and Why You Want One in the First Place)
It took a while, but email ultimately revolutionized the way attorneys practice law, especially when it comes to communication — with one another, with opposing counsel, and with their clients.
But despite its dominance as the default way of doing things, email isn’t necessarily the best way of communicating or exchanging documents with your clients during the course of your representation.
A better option might be client portals.
Sound familiar? If you head up a law practice, or if you’re a partner in your firm, you’ve probably at least heard the term by now. Maybe you’ve even been tasked with learning what it’s all about.
If you’re currently at that crossroads, trying to decide whether the transition to a client portal is worth the technological upheaval it might entail, this article is for you.
Below, you’ll find a Law Firm Client Portal 101 — everything you need to know about how portals work, why you might want one, how to choose the right application, and how you might integrate one within your firm’s existing web / cloud presence without too much hassle.
What Are Law Firm Client Portals?
As a term, “client portal” is just ethereal enough to allude lawyers who aren’t constantly plugged into the technosphere. So let’s boil it down to basics.
First, there’s the highly technical definition crafted in Law Practice Today, whose 2011 article about client portals was where many lawyers first encountered the phrase. Author Donna Seyle defined it as follows:
A “secure web space” that is accessible to a client … The term is most often applied to an electronic sharing mechanism between an organization and its clients. The organization provides a secure entry point, typically via a website, that lets its clients log in to an area where they can communicate, view and download documents, collaborate on document editing and upload private information. The portal exists only on the web and data is stored in the cloud. When data is transmitted between the secure portal and the client, it is encrypted.
Wikipedia’s entry, meanwhile, is relatively pithy:
An electronic gateway to a collection of digital files, services, and information, accessible over the Internet through a web browser.
But the best way to understand client portals is to compare them to what you already know. Web portals are a part of everyday life in the internet age. Each time you log into your online banking, an insurance provider’s website, or Healthcare.gov, you’ve accessed a web portal — a centralized hub for all your account information and communications with a given organization.
The portal is easy to access, specific to your activity and information, and perhaps most importantly, secure.
Client portals are simply web portals for law firms. They allow clients to log in to their account with your firm in the same way they access most of the other important service providers in their life.
5 Reasons You Might Want to Create a Client Portal for Your Firm
Last summer, the American Bar Association declared that “attorneys are flocking to client portals.” And this year, portals were central to the ABA’s TechShow 2018.
But a closer look at the ABA’s numbers reveals that not all attorneys are diving headfirst into the portal world. For the most part, it’s still a BigLaw thing. But that’s starting to change.
A 2016 ABA technology survey found that 72% of large law firms offered secure client portals, but only 11% of small or solo firms had adopted the same. But even among those smaller practices, there was growing interest in client portal technology.
In 2017, those statistics changed in some surprising ways. Only 57% of large law firms were now using secure client portals, but 30% of small or solo firms had adopted them. (Those changes may reflect, among other things, limitations in the sample size or the definitions of “large” or “small” firms.)
Those numbers tell us at least two things, however: if you’re a partner in BigLaw, you’ve probably encountered a client portal or at least the idea of one (and your biggest competitors may already be offering them).
But if you’re a solo practitioner or the founder / partner at a smaller firm, you may still wonder whether it’s worth taking the leap.
So should you? Here are five reasons you might consider it:
- Client portals are more secure than email.
Convenience may be email’s strong suit, but security isn’t. Most email travels across the internet unencrypted and unprotected from hacking or interception. As recent scandals have made all too clear, the email accounts themselves are vulnerable to unauthorized access — not only your account but also (and especially) your client’s. Even if your email account is hosted on a fairly secure server, those protections don’t apply once you hit the send button, especially if your client is using public WiFi and a library computer to access the Hotmail account they created in 1997. You never know. Clients don’t always practice due diligence in their handling of emails either, forwarding them to third parties (possibly waiving privilege in the process) or sending confidential information in unprotected attachments to plain-text emails.Long story short: email opens a wide door to security concerns. That fact notwithstanding, most state bars still allow attorneys to use unencrypted email without compromising their duties of competence or confidentiality. But recent ethics opinions in several jurisdictions have suggested that might change. As client portals increasingly become “the norm,” it is not unimaginable that state bars may begin to require that attorneys use them for client communications in the future.In fact, the ABA recently went so far as to say that “using unencrypted email is generally no longer appropriate.” (Source.) In reaching that conclusion, the ABA cited not only recent cyber controversies surrounding the 2016 U.S. election but also a 2014 New York Times report that read, “Security experts say email is a lot more like a postcard than a letter inside an envelope, and almost anyone can read it while the note is in transit.”While the ABA’s Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility stopped short of declaring a bright-line rule as to when encryption must be used in attorney-client communication, suggesting that attorneys undertake a “fact-based analysis” to make that determination for themselves, the committee’s official Opinion 477 nevertheless indicated a clear preference for encrypted communications. The opinion won’t bind the state bars’ ethics boards, of course, but ABA opinions can often forecast changes to come at the state level.Unlike email, most client portals are thoroughly encrypted. And while they are cloud-based – a concern for some lawyers — they are generally considered to be quite secure. (For those still uncomfortable with cloud technology vis a vis the Client Confidentiality standard in the Rules of Professional Conduct, see our “To Cloud or Not to Cloud?” discussion here.)
- Portals enhance your brand.
Prospective law clients have no shortage of attorneys to choose from, and most won’t settle for firms they perceive to be technologically “out of step” or lagging behind. Why should they, when there are five other firms with badass websites that scream “2018”? Millennials are especially sensitive to these things — and they are accounting for an ever-larger portion of the prospective client base. Offering a secure client portal tells potential clients that:
- Your firm values confidentiality.
- You have the resources to invest in online development.
- You can hold your own with “the big boys.”
- You’re in touch with the times.
In fact, offering a “Client Login” section on your homepage can even function as a kind of call to action. It suggests that there’s a whole client experience awaiting them, and that’s something you want your firm’s brand to convey.
- The portal makes your job easier.
Let’s face it: email is messy. How many times have you gone on the hunt for a particular email from nine months ago, only to spend half an hour scrolling through stray threads of irrelevant conversations with the same client?
Client portals keep information, communications, and documents streamlined. Rather than looking for an attachment you can barely recall, for instance, you and your client can summon a handy document history with the click of a button.
- You can bid farewell to spam filters and file size limits.
Using a portal also means fewer communications get lost in transmission. You’ll rest easy in the confidence of knowing your urgent outgoing messages haven’t been eaten by a spam filter, and that no file size limit has caused your attachment to bounce. Depending on your design, you may even be able to see if and when your client has opened your message. This brings guessing games to an end.
- Client portals integrate with your existing digital assets.
Are you already using cloud-based software solutions such as Case Management Systems (CMS), Practice Management Solutions (PMS), and so on? If so, adopting a secure client portal might not be nearly the hassle you expect.
In fact, many of the most popular CMS / PMS systems either come with built-in client portals or offer portal upgrades, meaning the system you already use for managing your client’s files internally (not to mention their billing, scheduling, and so on) will also be the platform you use for communicating and sharing files with them. It’s intuitive.
When you think about it, pulling files out of a CMS to then attach them to an email in a separate application isn’t just unsecure, it’s also redundant. An integrated client portal turns your CMS into a one-stop shop for your daily practice.
How to Get a Secure Client Portal for Your Firm
Interested in a secure client portal for your law firm but not sure where to start? You generally have three possible approaches:
- Design one yourself — We strongly advise against this approach, even if it is the cheapest. You really need to have extensive expertise in IT, and specifically in cyber security, to build an adequate client portal. Even most web designers do not offer custom web portal design services because they are very complex and time-consuming. Remember: the whole point here is to enhance security, create a seamless online experience for your clients, and to future-proof your practice for evolving standards in confidentiality and ethics. If your own technical abilities aren’t up to those considerable challenges, you’d be better off sticking with email than trying to build a portal all on your own.
- Hire a custom web portal designer — This will get the job done, but it’s incredibly expensive (much more expensive than WordPress-based law firm website design). More to the point, it’s probably unnecessary. There are enough ready-made solutions on the market, designed specifically for law firms. This obviates the need for custom-from-scratch portal development.
- Adopt one of the more popular law firm portal solutions — The biggest names in CMS / PMS are also, perhaps unsurprisingly, the biggest players in secure client portals for law firms. These include:
- Clio Connect
- Firm Central by Thomson Reuters
- Rocket Matter
- Zola Suite
…to name a few. Not using a CMS solution yet? Check our list of the Top 10 attorney CMS programs and our review of the most popular option, Clio.
Launching a Client Portal? Let Juris Digital Integrate it with Your Website & Promote it to Your Clients.
Bringing your law firm into the 21st century is no small feat. Step out on the right foot. Let us help.
Juris Digital is an attorney marketing agency that specializes in growing law firms into bigger cases and better clients using the web.
We don’t design secure client portals, and we don’t recommend you hire anyone else to either. As outlined above, it’s costly and unnecessary. The leading commercial options are pretty stellar once you get the hang of them.
But here’s what we can do:
- Fully integrate your web portal within your law firm’s website design (truly an essential part of launching a client portal)
- Promote your new portal to your entire client base. Because if they don’t use it — or don’t understand it — what’s the point?)
If you want, we can even do those things in conjunction with all the other legal marketing services we provide. These include content creation, link building, social media marketing, email marketing (for non-confidential communications), PPC advertising, and attorney SEO.